Broadband Gets Personal

Yesterday I made my weekly WiFi Stations of the Cross, waiting for my son during his Japanese class.

My search for a wireless Internet connection every Monday has taken on inevitability of the via dolorosa.

There’s the Starbucks T-Mobile hotspot, but I refuse to pay $9.00 for an hour of connection. That works out to about $6,500 a month. For that money I could buy a house in a much better neighborhood than my own.

I could drive to downtown Mountain View to pick up Google’s free municipal WiFi network, but that’s almost as far as going home.

The pizzeria with the free MetroFi reception closed for lack of much business except mine. The other restaurant in the same strip mall has a spotty reception and the owner won’t open his network to patrons. Internet access isn’t his business, he says. (I might argue that customer service is, but what do I know? I’m just an impoverished journalist.)

So naturally, my figurative ears perked up when I saw the words “personal broadband” in a press release from Richardson, TX-based Navini Networks, a supplier of WiMax equipment and systems.

The fault, according to Paul Sergeant, Navini’s Director of Strategic Marketing — to paraphrase Shakespeare — is not in our connection but in our paradigm.

The prevailing model for wireless connectivity is that it’s essentially the same as that for wired connections.

“There has been a move to wireless broadband but it’s principally a fixed service delivered to a building,” he says. “What people really need is a broadband service delivered to you and that moves when you move around.”

Personal broadband isn’t really such a new idea as it is a new, more marketing-savvy name. Personal broadband from mobile phone carriers — EV-DO and its GSM-based cousin HSPA — has been around for a while.

But WiMax, Sergeant argues, is the technology that will make personal broadband commonplace.

“WiMax delivers speeds comparable to cable — one to ten MB/second — delivered over cellular ranges with cellular mobility,” he says.

Even more important, WiMax is IP technology from the ground up. CDMA and GSM data services are “cellular circuit voice with data bolted on the side,” Sergeant explains. “WiMax is all data. Voice is done via VoIP. Instead of data playing second fiddle, voice is one of many services.”

Navini is currently basing its Smart WiMax equipment on a pre-standard — but fully upgradeable, Sergeant assures — version of the proposed mobile WiMax standard 806.16e. “The standard does support QoS, it does all the voice prioritization so we can give voice the priority it needs.”

Finally, WiMax infrastructure is cheaper and more resilient, says Sergeant.

“During Hurricane Katrina all the cellular systems went down. Personal broadband goes down too, but it’s faster to set up. It’s smaller, cheaper, more portable, more robust because it’s built on IP.”

Sergeant should know. Navini supplied WiMax technology to Bell South in the aftermath of the hurricane to reconnect the carrier’s customers.

An obvious application for Navini’s technology is in the developing world where there is no legacy infrastructure. “In the developing world if people want voice it’s delivered over wireless, there’s no copper or fiber. And,” he adds, “IP is cheaper.”

Of course, no picture is entirely rosy. One of the challenges for WiMax, as for conventional cellular services, is that of dead spots. This is where Navini is counting on its secret sauce, which it calls Smart Beamforming.

“It’s like a flashlight,” explains Sergeant. “The energy is being directed exactly where you want, and as you move the beam moves with you.” The benefits are better mobility and coverage as well as higher throughput and, ultimately, lower cost networks.

When you add all this up, the cost to subscribers comes down around $40 a month — comparable to DSL or cable connections. In addition, multiple devices can use the same subscription, unlike EV-DO services, which charge $60 to $80 a month for a single device. “That lines up with our personal expectations for Internet service,” adds Sergeant.

After hearing all this, I was ready to sign up. But it turns out I’ll have to wait.

Currently about 50 service providers worldwide use Navini’s equipment currently.

In the U.S., personal broadband service is only available in a few cities including New Orleans and Lubbock, TX, and will be available in Chicago and Washington D.C. by year end. In 2008, Sergeant expects Dallas, Denver and San Francisco to join the party, but ubiquitous service is probably two to four years away.

One city that is deploying mobile WiMax on a large scale is Sydney, Australia. Navini customer Unwired Australia is the city’s number one broadband service in terms of net additions, according to Sergeant. “With students and under-35s it’s by far the biggest,” he says. “It’s the same people who don’t have landlines, just cell.”

Maybe I should move to Australia. It might be cheaper than paying all those $9 connection charges to T-Mobile.